BY AMY MROTEK
It’s been approximately 63 days since my plane touched down in these here United States, back from the three-month hiatus known to all as “studying abroad.” Reunion hugs aside, I spent the bulk of those first few weeks ping-ponging between family and friends, answering questions I should have long anticipated. Everyone and their mothers wanted to know how London was. A few would inquire about the favorite place I visited or the favorite thing I did, though most didn’t stray far past these points, maybe offering up an anecdote from the time they themselves were in Europe. The conversation withdrew in the same polite tone from which it began.
And while my experience abroad was more than fulfilling, I can’t help but notice a conversational pattern emerging straight from the lips of fellow abroadees. Fresh off our perspective flights, we bask in our stories without realizing the very words we exchange are fundamentally–and absurdly–identical: “I had the time of my life,” “Studying abroad was life-changing,” “I’d go back right now if I could!” Versions of vanilla-flavored nostalgia ooze forth, yearnings for another time in another place where we all lost our average selves. This, ladies and gents, is #whitegirlwanderlust.
The problems of #whitegirlwanderlust begin well before takeoff. Fueled by movies and novels and travelling bloggers in Instagrammed perfection, the notion of packing up and going has been romanticized in culture to cult-like proportions. Your everyday self suffocates under the mundane. You need relief, change, something out of the ordinary. Rather than identifying and striving to liven the twangs of routine, we pack a suitcase and choose foreign escapism. It’s an understandable story; I lived it myself.
Yet can there honestly be a time when the very essence of your existence suspends before you, an instantaneous moment of drenched and utter wholeness where life is justified, harmonized, complete? We stamp studying abroad with this very stereotype. We prop it up on a stage of whimsy and wonder, telling everyone upon return it changed our lives forever. I ask with sincerity and skepticism: It sounds great, but what does that all actually mean?
In terms of studying abroad, it may take more than meets the eye to garner a genuine response. Reflection is a part of our daily being. Somehow, though, reflection during studying abroad gets pegged down into WordPress blogs where we expound the glittering details of our past week. We let everyone know all the new cities visited, desserts tried and tourist traps checked off. The most tragic entry is the one mentioning the debacle of missing our train and having to purchase another inconveniently timed ticket. The quality of the day seems to depend on the magnificence of these moments and we stack them one atop another, Jenga style, until all personal authenticity has been saturated.
There are obviously aches and pains attached to studying abroad. You will get tired, homesick, bored. There are days when you would do ungodly things for one bag of Cheetos, fully knowing they aren’t sold this side of the Atlantic.
Only these are not the realities begging to be taken into consideration, for even they can be broad generalities. The reality of the reality begs palpable reflection, severe and combative, conversations with yourself where you consciously try to separate surface, prepackaged whimsy for honest depth. Losing yourself abroad time and time again only to re-center your ego upon return with the label “life-changing” skews the entire stretch. You’ve made yourself a surface experience.
By no means do I wish to turn students away from studying abroad. Quite the contrary, I think displacing your sense of self provides a prime chance to raise the stakes on all relationships in your life, particularly the one with yourself.
Yet we do ourselves no good when we don’t realistically reflect on the opportunity, when we prematurely pump our minds full of peachy expectations and gold-trimmed narratives. Dig into the difficulties, let post-abroad conversations be deep and sincere. There’s no need to sell yourself short with preconceived projections. There’s no need to make yourself a hashtag.